SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 223 November 2018

Germany 1918

Revolution ends the first world war

In countries like Britain the centenary of the end of the first world war is primarily being marked as a military victory, hence the highlighting of the August 1918 Battle of Amiens as a turning point after a German advance was halted. The fact that the war’s actual ending was triggered by revolutions in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire is hardly mentioned. In Germany and the successor countries to Austria-Hungary, the story is more mixed. The workers’ revolutions are mentioned but usually downplayed as emphasis is given to the fall of autocratic monarchies and winning national independence.

But there was more to these revolutions than the downfall of empires and gaining democratic rights. Hot on the heels of the Russian revolution of 1917 they challenged the very existence of capitalism – in particular, the German revolution that began in November 1918. In edited extracts from an article that first appeared in Socialism Today No.123, November 2008, ROBERT BECHERT looks at these incredible events, assessing their relevance for socialists today.

The German revolution is fundamentally the story of missed opportunities for the working class, but of events that changed the course of world history nonetheless. The overthrow of capitalism was possible in Germany 1918-23, with 1923 the one occasion, so far, when a majority of the working class in an industrialised, imperialist country supported a revolutionary Marxist party, in the shape of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

When, in November 1918, Germany’s revolution began, almost exactly a year after the Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin was ecstatic. Nadya Krupskaya, the Bolshevik he married, later wrote that Lenin was "completely carried away by the news", and that "the days of the first October anniversary were the happiest days in his life". Not only because of the overthrow of the Kaiser and the probable end of the first world war, but also because Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolsheviks understood that the ultimate fate of the Russian revolution was tied to the success of the socialist revolution in the rest of Europe, particularly Germany.

As we bitterly know, however, the German revolution did not succeed and, instead of creating a socialist society, capitalism continued. Not only did this failure result in the horrors of fascism and the second world war, it also opened the way to the victory of Stalinism in Russia and, ultimately, the complete undermining of the gains of the Russian revolution. Alongside its historic importance in helping set the course of the 20th century, the story of the German revolution illustrates many issues of programme, strategy and tactics that can face Marxists in the more stormy times we are entering now.

The turning point

Alongside Germany’s economic strength, a key element in the revolution was the power of its workers’ movement. Before the 1914-18 war, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was the leading party in the Second International, then mainly comprised of Marxist parties. The SPD had paved the way in building massive working-class organisations that, formally at least, had the aim of overthrowing capitalism.

It was the outbreak of the war that brought out into the open that the majority of the SPD leadership had adopted a pro-capitalist position and would, in future, oppose socialist revolution. This was the essential meaning of the turning point of 4 August 1914, when the SPD voted to support ‘its’ side in this inter-imperialist war. This was a decisive step towards the SPD leaders’ integration into the capitalist system and prepared the way for the openly counter-revolutionary role they played after 1918.

This was not entirely a bolt from the blue. Before 1914 there had already been a sharpening political struggle within the SPD. During this period, Rosa Luxemburg became the leading opponent of the growing reformist, non-revolutionary trends within the party. But, unlike the Bolsheviks in their struggle between 1903 and 1912 in the Russian Social Democracy, Luxemburg did not draw the Marxist wing into a coherent opposition that systematically fought for its ideas and built support. Tragically, this contributed to its weakness at the beginning of the revolution in 1918 and to subsequent lost opportunities and defeats.

Right from 1914 there was opposition to the SPD leaders’ pro-war line from many activists who defended the party’s, up to then, traditional socialist internationalist position. For a time, they were swamped and relatively isolated by the patriotic wave that swept all the combatant countries initially and they faced increasing repression from both the SPD leadership and the military authorities.

Nevertheless, as it became clear that the war would not be short, as news spread of the horrific slaughter of trench warfare and food shortages hit hard at home, opposition to the war mounted. By 1916, strikes were taking place over food supplies and wages, and after the 1 May arrest of the left anti-war SPD MP, Karl Liebknecht, there was a 55,000-strong protest strike in Berlin. In December 1914, Liebknecht had been the only one of 110 SPD MPs to vote against the war. A year later, 20 voted against and 24 abstained.

Opposition to the war received an enormous boost from the 1917 Russian revolution, both the February overthrow of tsarism and October’s Bolshevik victory. Immediately, Russia became an example of overthrowing a monarchy and establishing a republic. In particular, the soviets (councils) formed by the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants were a model. The strikes of around 300,000 workers in April 1917, particularly in Leipzig, saw the first formation of workers’ councils (Räte) in Germany.

Alongside a growing radicalisation among workers, unrest was spreading within the military with sailors forming a secret organisation. The appeal of the Russian revolution grew enormously after October, when power passed into the hands of Bolshevik-led soviets. A key factor in this was the Bolsheviks’ consistent policy of consciously appealing to workers in the rest of Europe to follow the Russian workers’ example of winning democratic rights, ending the war and overthrowing capitalism.

Against this background, the January 1918 strikes were even more widespread. The slogans of ‘peace, freedom, bread’ were close to the Bolsheviks’ ‘peace, land, bread’. In Berlin, half-a-million workers struck for five days in protest at the government’s annexationist demands at the Brest-Litovsk peace talks with Soviet Russia. Significantly, the SPD leaders, while saying they supported workers’ economic demands, still argued that they should work for ‘victory’ in the world war.

Organising the left

Almost from the war’s beginning, the anti-war left faced censorship and repression in a determined drive to silence opposition. More fundamentally, the question was what lessons needed to be drawn from this turning point, with the SPD’s transformation from a weapon to be used to overthrow capitalism into an instrument seeking to secure the capitalist system.

The past failure to organise the revolutionary elements within the SPD, however, made it more difficult to draw the necessary political and organisational conclusions. Luxemburg feared that setting up an independent revolutionary organisation could lead to isolation from the broad masses that still looked to the SPD – and, later, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). But while Marxists had to avoid creating a sectarian barrier between themselves and the broader working class, non-organisation was not the answer.

Without it there would be no arena where ideas and experiences could be discussed, and proposals formulated and implemented in a concerted way. Luxemburg, reacting to the way in which the SPD’s organisation had become a bureaucratic obstacle to workers’ action, believed that the necessary political clarity and organisation could spontaneously develop when workers were in struggle. The revolution that started in 1918 would show both the strengths and weaknesses of spontaneous movements.

The growing opposition to the war was reflected in struggles in the SPD, including its parliamentary group. After less than two years, 20 dissidents were expelled from the group and, in April 1917, the split was formalised with the establishment of the left-wing, anti-war USPD. The new party took between a quarter and a third of the SPD membership. Its strength varied from area to area: in Berlin, Leipzig and four other areas, the entire SPD district structure joined the USPD.

Politically, the USPD was very mixed. It included representatives of the pre-war reformist wing, like Eduard Bernstein, who were against the war from a pacifist viewpoint. Karl Kautsky, a leading representative of the pre-war Centre tendency, was also a member. At the same time, the USPD included many who were moving in a revolutionary direction, which was the reason why Luxemburg and Liebknecht joined it.

Very rapidly, the situation changed in mid-1918. The failure of the German army’s spring offensive and the arrival of growing numbers of US troops convinced the military leadership that the war could not be won. On 29 September, they requested that the government ask for a truce. Not wanting to take political responsibly for admitting the war was lost, and wanting to use the parliamentary leaders as cover, the generals gave up their dictatorial rule. The first ever German government formally responsible to parliament rather than the Kaiser was formed. In mid-October, it asked US president, Woodrow Wilson, to help negotiate a truce. The SPD supplied two ministers to sit in this capitalist coalition headed by prince Max von Baden.

November revolution

The spark that set the revolution off was a naval mutiny in Wilhelmshaven that spread to Kiel when sailors refused to engage in a meaningless last battle with the British navy. This led to a clash in Kiel on 3 November when seven demonstrators were killed and many injured. As the sailors sent out emissaries, the revolutionary upheaval spread throughout the country within days, with workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils being formed in many cities, towns and ports.

Events moved rapidly. November 9 saw the SPD leaders reluctantly declare a republic and, after von Baden’s resignation, agree to his proposal that the SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, become chancellor (prime minister). Desperately, the SPD sought to find ways to control the situation. Understanding the revolutionary mood, it sought to appease the working class and military rank and file while trying to ensure that the capitalist system was maintained.

Desperate to give the appearance of being revolutionary, the SPD-led government formed the next day took the name Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of People’s Commissars), which could be translated as exactly the same name as the Bolshevik government in Soviet Russia. While the name was virtually the same, there was a fundamental difference between the SPD government working to save capitalism and the Bolshevik government striving to end it internationally.

At the same time, the SPD tried to neutralise the left, under the slogan ‘unity of the working class’, by involving the USPD in the new government, giving it three people’s commissars, the same number as the SPD. The SPD even hinted that Liebknecht, newly released from prison, would be ‘welcome’ in the government, something he correctly refused. The USPD leaders had the illusion they were entering the government ‘to safeguard the gains of the socialist revolution’. At best, they were indulging in wishful thinking. The SPD leaders had already made clear that, while they could still use socialist phrases, their aim was to safeguard capitalism by preventing the Russian October revolution being repeated in Germany.

On the eve of the Kaiser’s abdication, Ebert complained: "If the Kaiser doesn’t abdicate the social revolution is unavoidable. But I don’t want it; indeed I hate it like sin". Using the prestige of the SPD, still seen by many German workers as ‘their’ party, its leaders strove to win time for the stabilisation of capitalism. In some areas, it was the local SPD leaders who took the initiative in forming councils, to ensure they had control of them.

Again learning lessons from the Russian revolution, the SPD leaders sought to quickly minimise and then sideline the councils. At the December national congress of councils, the SPD secured 344 votes to 98, rejecting the declaration of a socialist republic and, instead, calling elections in January for a national assembly, with the clear aim of writing a constitution for a capitalist republic.

The revolution was moving quickly, however, especially in Berlin and some other areas. Sections of workers, soldiers and sailors were, within weeks of the revolution’s start, frustrated and angered that the old regime and capitalist system had not been completely finished off. At the end of November, left-wing protesters in Berlin were shot at. In early December, 14 were killed in Berlin by government supporters firing on a revolutionary soldiers’ protest.

Facing this radicalisation and growing support for the left, the SPD leaders attempted to reassert control. December 24 saw an attack on the People’s Naval Division (Volksmarinedivision), a force that originally had been sent to Berlin to safeguard the SPD but which had become increasingly radicalised. The government ordered that 80% of its forces be discharged. When the sailors refused, the SPD sent other military units to attack them, resulting in the so-called ‘bloody Christmas’, when the sailors successfully defended themselves.

This led to the final crisis in the SPD-USPD coalition, with the USPD people’s commissars resigning on 29 December over bloody Christmas and the SPD’s refusal to give powers to the soldiers’ councils. The USPD commissars were replaced by three more SPD representatives, including Gustav Noske, who became responsible for the army and navy. He quickly began organising the military forces of counter-revolution, the Freikorps – many of them joined the Nazis in the 1920s. By the end of 1918, the SPD had begun to deploy Freikorp units near Berlin in preparation for a blow against the revolution.

Early hopes and illusions

In one sense, how the early stages of the German revolution unfolded were similar to that in Russia but, initially, at a much quicker pace. The November revolution had resulted in councils taking effective power in a number of cities. In Bavaria, a council republic had been declared. In Saxony, a manifesto jointly issued by the councils of Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz declared that capitalism had collapsed and the working class had seized power. In some areas, armed workers’ units were formed to protect the revolution.

Revolutions are characterised by the broad masses taking the stage and this was the case in Germany. Workers’ organisations grew extremely rapidly. Trade union membership, 2.8 million in 1918, jumped to 7.3 million the next year. The SPD grew from 249,400 in March 1918 to over 500,000 a year later. The left-wing USPD grew from 100,000 to 300,000 between November 1918 and February 1919.

Initially, this sudden increase tended to push the more active, radicalised layers into a minority, as the new activists tended to have more illusions and hopes in the SPD and trade union leaders. This was also the case in the early days of the Russian revolution when the Bolsheviks, despite being the largest workers’ party before February, became a minority in the soviets as support went to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But a combination of workers’ and peasants’ experience and the work of the Bolsheviks meant that, within months, they regained majority support and were in a position to carry through the October revolution.

This was something that the SPD leaders desperately wanted to stop. Immediately after November, Germany faced a situation of dual power. On the one hand, the revolution had swept from power large parts of the old regime. For a few weeks at least, the workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils held real power. This was not consolidated, however, and the SPD leaders worked with the capitalists to neuter the councils and restore normal bourgeois government.

The SPD had to move very carefully because the revolutionary tide had not ebbed. Nevertheless, as happens in most revolutions, there came a time when sections of the workers felt that their power was slipping away and the capitalist order was being re-imposed. In many cases, as in the ‘July days’ in Russia, this can lead to spontaneous attempts to stop the revolution being rolled back. The SPD leaders moved to try to provoke the more radicalised workers into taking premature action – premature because the mass of workers had not yet drawn the same conclusions as they had.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks had understood this. They sought to provide a leadership and strategy that would prevent the more advanced activists being isolated, and to enable them to convince the mass of the working class and poor of the actions needed to complete the revolution. In Germany, there was no equivalent force able to play the role the Bolsheviks did.

Impatient for change

The Spartacus League was formed only in mid-November 1918, its initial membership a few thousand, although it started to grow quickly. From the outset there were debates within the Spartacists and the wider revolutionary left on how to work. From the USPD’s foundation, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the Spartacists had been active in the new party while maintaining their own group and publications. This had continued during the revolution with, for example, a big debate in Berlin in mid-December on whether the USPD should remain in the coalition government.

At the same time, there was a debate on whether the Spartacists, along with others working outside the USPD like the Bremen left, should form a Communist Party. Luxemburg tended towards remaining in the still-growing USPD, at least until its next congress. Liebknecht and others wanted to found a party immediately. Clearly, an independent revolutionary party was necessary. It was also important to pay attention to what was happening inside the fast radicalising USPD. In fact, in 1920, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) became a truly mass force when it fused with the majority of the USPD.

At that time, there was a great deal of impatience among many revolutionary socialists in Germany. This was due to a number of factors, especially the urgent need to complete the November revolution, and help Soviet Russia, by overthrowing capitalism in Germany. In addition, there was tremendous, growing hatred of the SPD leaders because of what they had done during the war, the role they were playing in the revolution and, increasingly, the SPD leaders’ willingness to bloodily suppress opposition on their left.

It was against this background that, when the KPD was founded at the very end of 1918, a majority decided to abstain in the forthcoming elections to the national assembly – against the wishes of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others. Unfortunately, the majority did not see how, at that time, the elections to the assembly – the first ever fully democratic vote in German history – would have large support and that it was necessary, therefore, for Marxists to use them as a platform to explain their position. At the same time, the radicalisation in Berlin and some other areas led to an overestimation of the support for another revolution.

One feature of the German revolution was that it unfolded at a different pace around the country. In different areas there were repeated attempts by workers to take control into their hands. But there was no national force able to give direction to these attempts, including judging what the best timing was or how to consciously win nationwide support. Tragically, although the government was too weak to crush all the movements simultaneously, the counter-revolution utilised the different speeds to move around Germany city by city. At the start of 1919, Berlin was the key, as the dual power situation there was unresolved.

The Berlin provocation

In December 1918, the SPD government decided to organise a provocation in Berlin. Having gathered counter-revolutionary Freikorp troops outside the city, it ordered the removal of Berlin’s police chief, USPD member Emil Eichhorn. The Berlin USPD, the revolutionary shop stewards organisation and the KPD, called a mass demonstration for 5 January to defend Eichhorn’s position. The success of that protest convinced some of the leaders that it was possible to overthrow the government and an Interim Revolutionary Committee of the three organisations was established. The next day saw a bigger demonstration of around 500,000 workers, many armed, but they waited for hours in the rain before dispersing, as the Revolutionary Committee was unable to put forward any proposals for what they should do.

This attempt to seize power was premature, falling for the SPD leaders’ provocation. They could portray it as an attack on the government, on the national councils’ congress majority and the forthcoming national assembly elections. Although the workers were probably strong enough to rule Berlin alone, this was not the case in much of the rest of Germany, where illusions and hopes still existed in the SPD government. As was seen in other cities in the following few months, a victorious insurrection in Berlin at that time would have probably been isolated and open to counter-revolutionary attack.

On 8 January, Noske’s troops began their offensive, politically dressing it up as a fight against ‘terrorism’. Noske said, just before this battle: "If you like, someone has to be the bloodhound. I won’t shy away from the responsibility". He had helped organise the Freikorps as a counter-revolutionary force one of whose tasks was to attempt to behead the revolution by killing the most well-known KPD leaders and suppressing it in the capital. Thus, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered by Freikorp officers on 15 January, three days after the fighting had stopped.

While this bloody defeat was a major blow against the revolution and the KPD in particular, it did not end the radicalisation of the Berlin proletariat. This was reflected in the national assembly elections only a week after the suppression of the Spartacus uprising, with the left-wing USPD winning 27.6% in Berlin, compared with 7.6% nationally.

As the fighting in Berlin was coming to an end, a council republic was proclaimed in Bremen. After finishing in Berlin, Noske ordered Freikorp units to crush the movement there. This, in turn, provoked mass strikes and fighting in the Ruhr, Rhineland and Saxony and, at the beginning of March, a general strike and more fighting in Berlin. In other areas, like Hamburg and Thuringia, there was also a near civil war situation, while the council republic in Munich was one of the last to fall, in early May.

The November 1918 revolution had shown the colossal power of the working class in modern society. The German workers were able to overthrow the virtual military dictatorship which ruled the country during the war and the imperial regime. They created workers’ and soldiers’ councils across the country, poured into political parties and trade unions, and demanded ‘socialisation’. Even when defeated in 1918-1919 the movement’s strength was enough to prevent the crushing of all democratic rights. The counter-revolution had been forced to take a ‘democratic’ form, even sometimes dressing itself in ‘socialist’ phraseology – for the time being.

There was still the opportunity for the KPD to learn from the experiences of November. Although capitalism survived this first round, the German revolution was not over. Millions of workers moved to the left, stopped supporting the SPD and, by the end of 1920, made the KPD a truly mass force. However, the tragedy is that, when the KPD was able to get majority support from workers in 1923 – after a series of heroic struggles – it let the opportunity slip. The disastrous consequences were that, instead of the world being completely transformed there was the rise of Stalinism and Hitler’s later victory, with all that meant for humanity.

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